Message for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (10/17/2021)
Give James and John credit for their audacity, I guess. On the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction, they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” It borders on the absurd, doesn’t it? Jesus has repeatedly foretold his persecution and death at the hands of the authorities, and he’s already invited his friends to join him in the way of sacrificial love: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He’s even specified the importance of humility and servant leadership before: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
But, the message hasn’t sunk in. James and John have apparently missed the point because they’re still jockeying for places of honor in his presence: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The irony of this request, of course, is that when Jesus is finally lifted up, it won’t be in glory, but on a cross, just as he’s insisted all along. And, those at his right and left hand won’t be premier disciples, but the two criminals who are crucified with him.
I want to give the disciples the benefit of the doubt here, so I try to put myself in their shoes. I imagine it’s difficult to accept that the Messiah should suffer at the hands of the very powers he’s supposed to overcome. I imagine it’s difficult to understand that God’s own Beloved should be publicly humiliated as a consequence of the life-changing ministry for which he ought to be praised instead. I imagine it’s difficult to acknowledge that God’s triumph should involve tragedy, both for Jesus and his followers.
It’s a complete reversal of expectations; it’s not how God’s power is supposed to work. So, maybe James and John can be forgiven for their misunderstanding; maybe they can be forgiven for insisting yet again on the way of the world: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
On the other hand, it may be that their shameless pursuit of VIP status has something to do with fear. In the verses immediately prior to today’s Gospel, Mark mentions that those who are on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus are afraid. So, maybe something of the Teacher’s message has hit home after all; maybe James and John are feeling unsettled as they set out on the last leg of their journey with Jesus: What if he meant everything he said about rejection and persecution and pain and death?
From that perspective, the disciples’ clamoring for rank makes more sense to me. When the way forward is foreboding, when we’re uncertain of the future, we tend to grasp for any security we can get. So, maybe James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand is a misguided attempt to manage their anxiety; maybe they’re doubling down on some worldly sense of assurance: If Jesus guarantees us places of privilege, they may be thinking, then everything will turn out ok in the end, right?
That reading helps me understand the prevalence of Christian “lobbying for preferential treatment” in our day and age. When people of faith insist on our right to refuse service, or to restrict the rights of others, or to abstain from measures to protect public health, for instance, it’s likely rooted in a sense of insecurity, of losing our grip on a particular worldview or set of expectations. And, efforts to reassert ourselves on religious grounds reflect the impulse to regain control over our circumstances, or at least the illusion of control.
But, when faith becomes primarily a matter of rights, we’re liable to lose sight of our responsibilities. Notice that Jesus evades James and John’s request for elevated status: “You do not know what you are asking,” he says, and in any case, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus is crystal clear, however, about the responsibilities that accompany discipleship: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” If Jesus inverts our expectations for his own Messianic ministry, in other words, he also inverts our expectations for the Christian life: servant leadership, not supremacy; sacrificial love, not self-assertion.
If we’re tempted to despair of our chances to live up to those expectations, the promise that accompanies Jesus’ command is right there in today’s Gospel: “The cup that I drink you will drink,” he avows, “and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” that is, the cross I bear you, too, will bear. It’s possible to read that as a warning, but it’s also possible to read it as a word of encouragement, as one interpreter suggests: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” that is, “You will not always be driven by your fears and need for security…. you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me. You will be faithful disciples even to the end.”
And in the end, the way of the cross, the way of sacrificial love, is the way to more abundant life for the whole world. In anticipation of Reformation Sunday in just two weeks, let me share with you how Martin Luther expresses this same conviction in his famous Treatise On Christian Liberty, or The Freedom of a Christian, and let it be a fitting conclusion:
“My God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true…. I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”
Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.
Liturgy © 2021 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord”; text: Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000; music C. Hubert H. Parry, 1848-1918; text © 1982 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Will You Let Me Be Your Servant”; text: Richard Gillard, b. 1953; music: Richard Gillard; arr. Betty Pulkingham, b.1928; text and music © 1977 Scripture In Song, admin. Integrity Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve”; text: Delores Dufner, OSB, b.1939; music: attr. Thomas Haweis, 1734-1820; text © 1993 Delores Dufner, admin. OCP Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.